Bush Westerns?: The Lost Genre
This is the written text of a presentation which featured about half and hour's worth of film clips. Some of the commentary section is in note form. Neither the clips, nor stills from them, appear in this internet version.
Here we are at the last presentation in a series of Australian films about Australian bushrangers. This seems like a good time to look backwards, into the past, back to the very first bushranger movies - the ones that presumably set the pattern for Captain Thunderbolt, Ned Kelly and the others shown over the last few days.
I say "presumably" because we really don't know much about what these early films actually showed. Only a very little footage has survived, incomplete and often in poor condition. That is one reason why bushranger films are a "lost genre". There are simply not enough of them left. In fact, we have not one complete bushranger film from the first 20 or so years of Australian cinema, a period in which the genre was crucial at at least two junctures of commercial Australian film production. We have to imagine what those early bushranger films were like - or, as the American poet and playwright Bernard Pomerance would say, we must dream them all again.
Now, this does not mean that we know absolutely nothing about early bushranger films. In fact, you can figure out quite a lot about the stories they told from reviews of the films that appeared in newspapers and from the ways in which we know that other media treated bushrangers at the time. When you put that kind of knowledge together with the surviving movie footage, something like the narrative outlines of a genre can be discerned. And, in fact, film historians do this sort of thing all the time: we try to imagine movies lost to us from bits and pieces that have been left behind, dreaming them new out of the waking experience of the old.
Still, there is no denying that Australian film historians - not to mention ordinary movie-goers - know less about bushranger films than they do about, say, American westerns - and part of this situation is the result of the fact that for one reason or another, a much larger proportion of American westerns have survived than of Australian bushranger films. A few years ago I spent most of a week at a conference in Utrecht where every day we watched a different program of American western movies made between 1910 and 1915, most of which were completely intact. It is probably fair to say that almost everyone who is interested in the movies at all has an idea of what a western is, and that very, very few people outside this room have any idea at all what a bushranger film is.
Maybe this is why so many Australians tend to think that bushranger films must be "Australian westerns" or that, of course, the bushranger film would never have existed if there had not been American westerns first.
But actually, that is not the case. There would have been bushranger films if there had been no westerns and I am pretty sure that they would have looked very much the same as they actually looked. Bushranger films, to answer the question posed in the title of tonight's presentation, are not "bush westerns" and never were. Some of the more recent ones, like Captain Thunderbolt or Mad Dog Morgan, have clearly borrowed elements from postwar American westerns, but that does not make them westerns any more than Akira Kurasawa's Japanese samurai film Yojimbo is a western or than every movie with a Thompson machine gun in it is a gangster movie.
The very first film about bushranging shot in Australia was made before there was anything that you could reasonably call a genre of American western films. It was staged and shot in 1904 by the pioneering Australian film maker, Joseph Perry. Major Perry produced films for the Limelight Division of the Australian branch of the Salvation Army, which was at that time at the cutting edge of media experimentation worldwide.
The Salvation Army in Australia - and only in Australia - had for several years been putting together elaborate shows involving photographed and hand-drawn magic lantern slides, lectures, motion pictures, choral singing and the ubiquitous Salvation Army Band. Some of these shows featured the visual imagery of motion pictures exclusively. You can find out more about this extraordinary chapter in world media history at the Salvation Army Heritage Centre, only a few blocks from here at 69 Bourke Street.
Major Perry acted as head of production for this operation. The Australian film historian, Chris Long, has established that Perry's bushranging film, called Bushranging in North Queensland, was shot outside Winton in Queensland by the Major's "Biorama Company" - one of two touring Limelight Division subsections in operation at the time, both screening and producing films as they went. An account of the shoot appeared in the local Winton paper. Let me read a paragraph.
The Major having arranged his kinematograph camera, two pictures were taken. The first was a scene of fearful carnage, in which the passengers, including the ladies, were shot, and the mails rifled. In the second picture the tables were turned, the coach going a full gallop past the bushrangers, whilst the coachman emptied his revolvers and incidentally the saddles on the bushrangers' horses.
Two scenes, then - and, if the newspaper is to be believed, two scenes that do not connect easily into a single story line. First the bushrangers stop the coach; and next . . . they do not? Yet together, in the order they were shot, they do make a point: they suggest a lesson or a rule of conduct, and one very well suited to a Salvation Army audience. "Face daunting challenges with a strong heart, take decisive action, and you will win through", is one way of phrasing the message I sense in this account of Perry's film.
And, whether you agree with my interpretation of these contrasting bushranging "pictures" or not, I think you will agree that they do illustrate a contrast - a contrast between the violent triumph of the bushrangers (the carnage of the robbery) and the violent triumph of the mail coach (the carnage of empty saddles). Indeed, thinking about the way those scenes must have unrolled to their audience, really there is not likely to have been very much on the screen to point to which scene showed the triumph of good and which the triumph of evil. Any audience would know which was which, but the film - at least as it was described in the newspaper - was not made so that the imagery alone established the distinction between good from evil.
I have made a point of this because in certain ways the contrast set up in Perry's Bushranging in North Queensland is reproduced throughout the early bushranger genre. But only the contrast - not necessarily the moral message I derived from it in this instance. In bushranger films there is always an appeal for judgement: the audience is asked to make up its mind between two ways of life which are portrayed as so different as to be well nigh irreconcilable. One of these ways of life is what we might consider the established life of ordinary people. The other is the way of the outlaw.
The first film in which bushrangers appear for which we have any surviving footage was made in 1906 and features the Kelly Gang, but it is not the really famous 1906 Kelly Gang film, which was apparently made a little later. It looks as though this earlier Kelly Gang film was shot in Western Australia, and I suspect that it may have been based on a stage melodrama about a plucky young woman named Ada Waldron. At any rate, a character with that name appears in the film but, so far as I know, no one called Ada Waldron had anything to do with the real Kelly Gang. The surviving footage from this film was called "The Perth Fragment" by the dean of Australian film historians, Ina Bertrand, and I'll show you a scene from it a little later on.
We don't know what the title of the film preserved in "the Perth Fragment" was, but Perry's film was called Bushranging in North Queensland, and it was about bushranging - what bushrangers did - rather than about bushrangers themselves. This is also true of "the Perth Fragment", which, as I said, seems likely to have been about Ada Waldron. But the early bushranger films with which I am concerned (and most of the more recent ones too) are about bushrangers. That is one of the defining elements of this lost genre.
Most of the bushrangers in bushranger films were real people who committed real crimes - like Ned Kelly, Ben Hall, Fred Ward and Dan Morgan. Some, like "Captain Starlight" in Robbery Under Arms and The Sick Stockrider, were based on real people (in this case on Fred Ward). But all of the real bushrangers were deliberately, consciously, fictionalised in the bushranger films. They were made into legends - not always the same legend for the same person either.
The really famous 1906 Kelly Gang film that I mentioned earlier is The Story of the Kelly Gang - or TSOTKG. It is, or ought to be, the most famous early Australian film, period - because it is a milestone in Australian and world film history: the world's first secular narrative feature. This is a single film story that took up an entire cinema show, with a lecturer to explain what was going on and to cover the time while reels were being changed. TSOTKG was never ever made available in short episodes as most longer films made before 1912 were - only as a full program's entertainment. And, unlike the full-program film shows put on by the Salvation Army, TSOTKG told its single secular story dramatically, resulting in an experience much more directly related to the experience of going to see a play than of attending one of the Salvation Army's multi-media spectacles. That is, TSOTKG was to most intents and purposes what we think of as a commercial feature film today.
And all of this happened in 1906, about five years before anyone was making or showing program-length secular narrative features anywhere else in the world. I don't want to mislead you. From the beginning of the twentieth century there had been long film narratives about the life of Christ and events from the Old Testament - but they were only presented in church-sponsored venues, and they were more commonly presented in separate short episodes rather than the whole story in a single program. There had also been full programs of multi-round boxing matches and of other documented events, including the ceremony of Australian Federation in 1901. But I submit that none of these are very much like what we mean by "a feature film", and TSOTKG is.
There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the strongest ones are the example that the producers of TSOTKG had in the Salvation Army shows, which sometimes featured a multi-reel film presentation on one topic - and their desire to keep the profits from the distribution and exhibition of their film entirely to themselves. If they had made a shorter film it would have to have been shown on programs along with other films, and thus sold or hired out to exhibitors. However, with a longer film, complete with a travelling lecturer, the film makers were in a position to act as their own distributors, taking their show on the road themselves, making their own deals with the venues in which the film was shown, getting every penny of profit that they could in the most direct manner possible.
This was a very successful business strategy - TSOTKG played all over this country for years and was successfully exported to England - and its success inaugurated the world's first feature film industry here in Australia. From 1906 until 1913, when the rest of the world began to switch to features, multi-reel features made up nearly two-thirds of Australian motion picture production. Again, I don't want to mislead you - not all of these features made up the whole show the way TSOTKG did, but all of them were intended to be the "headliners" of the programs they were on: the movies you went to see.
So Australia made the world's first feature - and it was a bushranger film - a film about what makes a bushranger, about the notable deeds that a bushranger does, and about the way in which bushrangers meet their fate. In the United States there had been lots of films set in the American West by 1906, but no theoretically or practically identifiable western genre - and, of course, no western features. Instead, in US western movie history 1906 is the date of a one reel film its producer once claimed was "the first Western", The Life of a Cowboy. The American western as we understand it today seems to have started to crystallise only about a year later when the man who would come to be known as Broncho Billy Anderson began to make western adventure films for the Selig Company in Chicago.
But by 1910, when its producers remade The Story Of The Kelly Gang here, the American western had become immensely popular worldwide, and I am sure that the popularity of westerns served as an impetus for that bushranger remake, as well as for the two other bushranger films made that year: The Life And Adventures Of John Vane, The Notorious Australian Bushranger and Thunderbolt.
Some segments of the first and the second versions of TSOTKG have survived (and I'll be showing you some of that footage in a moment), but some years ago a more substantial section of one of the other 1910 bushranger films was discovered. As it happens, this film was also an important one historically. It was John Gavin's Thunderbolt, based on a fictionalised account of the career of the bushranger known as Captain Thunderbolt, and it was the first film of a twenty-one month production boom lasting from late 1910 until the middle of 1912 that saw some 81 secular narrative films made (at least 33 of them multi-reel features). For about ten months bushranger films flooded the box office - eleven films, more than 30% of what was released.
I think it is undeniable that bushranger films first initiated, then fuelled, this boom - by some measures the most productive period in Australian film history. It is not too much to claim that the bushranger film was the foundation stone of the Australian film industry - not only the occasion of its first commercial manifestation, but of the years of its most extraordinary flourishing. The western, for all its many long years as the financial underpinning of Hollywood, never played such a direct and dramatic role in American film history.
The boom continued until early July 1912, but only one more bushranger film was released from August 1911 until Harry Southwell's first feature about the Kelly Gang in 1920. This does not seem to have been because bushranger films had proved unpopular at the box office (although there had been a surfeit of them released in nine and a half months), but because they were unpopular with what we may call "right-thinking people". The police of several states banned showing films about bushrangers. They thought that such films incited young men to take up lives of crime. New South Wales and Victoria, the most populous states, put bans in place at least by 1912. Apparently South Australia did the same somewhat later. These bans stayed in force until the 40s, even if they were sometimes more stringently enforced and sometimes less - as Southwell's films and Kenneth Brompton's Robbery Under Arms from 1920 show. And they seem to have been effective. There have been only twelve bushranger features released in the 92 years between August 1911 and Gregor Jordan's Ned Kelly this year - the same number of bushranger films were released in just eighteen months between March 1910 and August 1911.
As you might expect, actually getting a bushranger film through the police bans was not only quite difficult, it was also a fairly chancy business. Even if you did all the authorities asked, you weren't guaranteed a positive decision. Established film making companies were not interested in the risk. So the people who did make bushranger movies during this period were often a little like bushrangers themselves. The genre attracted adventurers and people who didn't have much to lose. For me the most interesting of these is the aforementioned Harry Southwell.
Southwell, who was born in Wales, had done some screenwriting in the United States before he came to Australia. I am sure that he saw an opportunity for quick and easy profit if he made a cheap film about the Kelly Gang for release in 1920, the fortieth year after Ned Kelly's hanging. This film seems to have been called The Kelly Gang - or sometimes, The True Story of the Kelly Gang. But then, two or three years later, he apparently remade the film with a slightly different cast - pretty much what had been done a decade before when The Story of the Kelly Gang was remade by its original producers. Southwell's new film was titled When The Kellys Were Out. This one was forbidden in New South Wales and in Adelaide, although it was openly shown in Melbourne. When we get to the clips I will be showing you several excerpts from When The Kellys Were Out so that you can compare the way it treated bushrangers in 1923 with the way earlier films had treated them.
Southwell not only wrote, produced and directed these films, but I am pretty sure that he distributed them as well (like the producers of TSOTKG) - and I imagine he distributed them more or less by hand, or at least, in person. His Kelly films were probably shown, if only on the sly, in at least some major cities - but it seems likely that their biggest audiences were to be found in lots and lots of country towns - where, perhaps, the police might be more easily induced to look the other way during the screening. In the thirties he made a third Kelly film, When the Kellys Rode - and that one apparently prompted another resumption of the New South Wales police ban (which can only have helped swell the box office in the rural market). In the fifties he started the film that later became The Glenrowan Affair under Rupert Kathner's direction.
There were only six bushranger features released during the nearly forty years the ban was supposedly in place. (If you have been keeping count, this means that Southwell was responsible for half of the bushranger features released between 1911 and 1951).
At the same time, I think it is possible to make too much of the ban. I think it is better to think of the ban as a symptom of a wider cultural attitude that probably would have curtailed the production and exhibition of bushranger films in any case, rather than the sole cause of that curtailment. Up through the forties, Australian cinema in general is remarkably wholesome - few crime stories or stories about fallen women in comparison with, say, British cinema or even Hollywood during the same period - and certainly no films that depict such matters with relish. The wowsers were running things, and the police bans against bushranger films may be usefully thought of as evidence of their attitude, which surely would have had pretty much the same effect even without official police backing.
But more than that, it is hard to imagine any government not discouraging the showing of films that made bandits and outlaws into heroes. This is one of the reasons that censorship exists: to protect impressionable young persons from being lead astray. The very elements that make bushrangers attractive to many people (me, for instance) tend to upset many others. Hollywood movies about heroic western outlaws are actually pretty rare. The cowboys who operate outside the law have almost always been forced there temporarily and because of the machinations of a villain - they are not breaking the law but actively reinstating it. And this is surely because the studios that made westerns saw no profit in having their movies accused of leading young people into lives of crime. I am sure that respectable Australian producers thought the same: it was not worth the potential box office profit to risk being branded a corrupter of youth. Gangsta rappers today are often portrayed as advocates of nihilistic, destructive lawbreaking. Their most extreme tracks don't get much if any airplay, some don't get released, words are censored out. Times are different, more lenient, but even in these less censorious times rappers who want to reach the widest market tend to mellow out. Back then, it was easier, wiser, simply not to make the movie.
If the American western had been banned during the same period we probably would not have had Tom Mix or William S. Hart or Hopalong Cassidy or Gene Autry or Roy Rogers or even John Wayne. John Ford and Raoul Walsh, among others, may not have had the directing careers they did. We can't imagine what that would have been like - but we don't have to imagine what the Australian cinema would have been like without the bushranger genre because that genre has been lost - the earliest films lost because so little of them has survived physically, and the later ones lost because no one dared to make them in the face of opposition from all right-thinking people.
So we must dream again what might have been if the bushranger genre had not been lost to us. The stars, the beards, the bit players, the film makers, the clever horses, the landscapes - trees and hills and rocks, the daring feats, the gallantry, the shooting, the cruelty, the injustice. All those doomed bold outlaws, all the triumphant police. And the sun going down behind the hills as someone says, "I know they are still out there somewhere. They waiting in the hills. They will come when we give the signal."
Here are some of the fragments of film that haunt the bushranger dream. I have tried to arrange most of them in a series of comparisons so that you can see how various different films treated some of the common elements and motifs of the bushranger's story.
Arrest: Thunderbolt (1910) c3 mins
First we are going to look at two arrests. In one variant of the bushranger legend there are just two important arrests: the first is the arrest that makes an outlaw of a wild colonial boy; the second is the arrest that finishes the bushranger's career. In this first clip we will see the arrest that turns out to be a significant cause of Frederick Ward's becoming a bushranger.
John Gavin's Thunderbolt, the film that started the production boom of the 'teens, is also the bushranger film that has survived in most nearly complete form. We have about two reels of a film that was at least three reels long (that is, it ran for at least half an hour).
This was Gavin's first film. He played Frederick Ward - who became Captain Thunderbolt - as well as directing. Thunderbolt ran for a full month in Sydney, which qualifies it as a box office hit for 1910. Building on this success, Gavin made eight more films during the boom and at least seven (including shorts) after that. Before Thunderbolt he had been a theatrical performer, both on the "legitimate" stage and in vaudeville. Afterwards he seems to have spent some of the time between Australian productions in Hollywood working as a bit player in westerns and comedies.
Thunderbolt is said to have been based on a book called Three Years with Thunderbolt, the sort of postmodern book that is not supposed to have existed back then. Three Years with Thunderbolt pretended to be the memoirs of a boy named William Monckton who had spent some time with the bushranger, but it was actually a highly-fictionalised reworking of Monckton's tales - already somewhat suspect when he was telling them to the police.
Gavin's adaptation keeps some elements and alters others. Mainly he simplifies the book's storyline, arranging events chronologically, which is not what the book did. He also devotes a great deal more time to scenes of action, like this one.
But look at how the cinema intrudes on Gavin's project. It bails up the story just like a bushranger bails up the people he intends to rob. In this scene, for example, because the camera has been placed so far from the action it captures more than was intended - and by the end of the shot our attention has been bailed up and transferred to the foreground where something unrehearsed and unrelated is taking place.
Arrest: The Sick
Stockrider (1913) c3 mins
In the "pictorialised poem" (as it might have been called in 1913) of The Sick Stockrider the audience saw scenes illustrating Adam Lindsay Gordon's ballad poem of the same name.
What you are looking at now is intended to recall the dying - but preternaturally voluble - stockrider's role in the pursuit and capture of "Starlight", a fictional bushranger who turns up later in Boldrewood's Robbery Under Arms. This is the second arrest that is important to the bushranger.
The second type of arrest, I said, is the one that ends the bushranger's career. Not all bushrangers were arrested. Some were arrested more than once. Some, like Thunderbolt, were killed. One or two even got away. So this second arrest is not the only way that bushrangers meet their fates.
But, just as the first arrest triggers a metamorphosis from petty criminal to bushranger (Ward, for example, was merely one of a band of men stealing, or duffing, cattle when he was first arrested) so the last one writes the end of the bushranger. The trial, the sentencing, the hanging - if they happen at all, happen as appendices or epilogues (or, as we will see, to point a moral). It matters only that bushrangers face their fates without flinching and always resisting - in much the same way that it does not matter precisely what a bushranger does as a bushranger, so long as the deeds are notable, so long as they can be made the stuff of legend.
Gavin's Thunderbolt film actually spends quite a bit of time spinning out causes for Frederick Ward's transformation into Captain Thunderbolt. We have seen Ward's arrest. This gets him sentenced to a prison on Cockatoo Island, from which he makes a legendary escape. But news of his arrest has caused his sweetheart's collapse and death. When Ward finds this out, he visits her grave. There he swears a mighty oath and pens a note informing the authorities that from this time on he will be Captain Thunderbolt. This is the scene you are about to see.
But before that I must tell you that Ward's dead sweetheart seems to have been entirely made up, in an almost literal attempt to "whitewash" him. For according to most sources Frederick Ward was actually romantically involved with at least two "half-caste" women (that is, women whom the culture identified as being partly aboriginal). He married the first one, Mary Ann or Maggie Bugg, who helped him escape from Cockatoo Island and bore him a son - but seems to have left her later in favour of Louisa Mason, known in the Thunderbolt legend as "Yellow Long", a woman who robbed and fought by his side.
In the parts of Thunderbolt which survive no one appears who is identified as either of these women. However, in this scene Thunderbolt's note is taken to police by a woman dressed much as such a "half-caste" would have been presumed to have dressed (like a gypsy). In Gavin's next bushranger film, Moonlite, apparently his wife Agnes played an aboriginal woman. I would like to think that Agnes played this woman too - and that this woman is intended to be read as Mary Ann or as Yellow Long by people who knew Thunderbolt's story.
Campbell (1914) cl min
In the next scene we see another fate for a bushranger: redemption. Some bushrangers were redeemed, the most famous one being John Vane who repented and turned himself in. Here brave Trooper Campbell confronts a gang of bushrangers that contains the son of one of his friends and manages to convince the lad that he has set his foot on the wrong path.
This film, made by Raymond Longford from a Henry Lawson poem, is not really a bushranger film, but a film with bushrangers - in that way like The Sick Stockrider. More unusually, perhaps, Trooper Campbell, like The Sick Stockrider, is a "pictorialised poem", not just a film based on the same story as the poem. But in this case I think it is pretty clear that the poem, or selections from it, was intended to be declaimed in synchronisation with the film - that is, it was intended to be a sound film, of sorts. I'll read some lines of the poem that fit this scene as you watch it - but I won't be able to give you the flavour of a properly rehearsed (not to mention properly accented) performance.
"Don't fire! Don't fire! in Heaven's name!
It's Campbell, boys!" he cried.
"The boy that you would ruin
Goes home with me, my men;
Or some of us shall never
Ride through the Gap again.
You all know Trooper Campbell,
And have you ever heard
That bluff or lead could turn him
Or make him break his word?
"That reckless lad is playing
A heartless villain's part;
He knows that he is breaking
His poor old mother's heart.
He's going straight to ruin;
But 'tis not that alone,
He'll bring dishonour to a name
That I'd be proud to own. ..."
Opening: [The Story
Of] The Kelly Gang (1910) c1 min
Now we are going to look at the way in which some bushranger films begin. You are about to see the opening of the 1910 remake of The Story Of The Kelly Gang - including the logo of its distributor.
Three things are happening in this opening.
The first is that a particular setting is being established - the Kelly's rather prosperous and idyllic farm.
The second is that key characters are being introduced in a romantic portrait form.
And, finally, the action of the story begins - with the intrusion of the troopers on the idyllic setting.
Opening: The Kelly Gang (1920) c2+ mins
This clip will be your first taste of Harry Southwell's versions of the Kelly saga. The opening sequence you will see next comes from Southwell's first Kelly film. You will notice that Southwell changes the focus of the story in its opening shot to Kate Kelly's head and face.
The idyllic place of the 1910 film is changed into an idyllic character. Nothing in the short sequence that follows comes near the overflowing sentiment of that opening shot - and in fact what is notable about this sequence is that everything in it looks so tawdry, so unworthy of the beautiful face that preceded it.
Southwell was not a great film maker - far from it. But he did have a better understanding of how to render certain traditional dramatic elements in a cinematic way than is apparent in any of the other surviving bushranger footage from this period. The contrast between Kate's bright countenance and the worn, unkempt faces of those around her is also a contrast of character - and of ideas: purity and impurity, innocence and degradation. These are not new ideas for bushranger films, but it is not until Southwell that these ideas seem to have been articulated effectively on the screen.
Constable Fitzpatrick: The Story Of The Kelly Gang (1906)
Now for a comparison between the way in which two films have treated what is sometimes considered to be the key incident determining Ned Kelly's bushranger career.
The first sequence is from the Kelly Gang feature of 1906, which I have been calling TSOTKG. It is the opening of the story, but probably not the film (there were probably some scene-setting shots before it showing Mrs Kelly and Kate at home).
Constable Fitzpatrick has come to arrest Dan Kelly, but instead he makes advances towards Kate.
Ned, outraged, attacks Fitzpatrick and shoots him in the hand.
Kate keeps the Constable at bay while the boys escape to the hills. Notice the shot change to emphasise her heroic action. This suggests that the people who made this film were deliberately trying to make it a film, and not just filming a play.
When The Kellys Were Out (1923) c4 mins
Here is the same episode, developed at length, from Southwell's 1923 When The Kellys Were Out.
In this case, we begin with Ned as he approaches the farm and, presumably, spots Fitzpatrick's horse. I think Godfrey Cass, who plays Ned, is unquestionably the performer who makes the strongest impact in the role in the early films. It may not be the impact one would like a bushranger hero to make, but it is an impact nonetheless.
Much more time is spent on Dan, who looks even less like a hero than Ned.
Fitzpatrick does not press his attentions on Kate.
Mrs Kelly threatens to brain Fitzpatrick with a frying pan.
Ned does not shoot Fitzpatrick, who is wounded by accident.
We are left with two worried women, not with a woman triumphantly holding a trooper at bay.
The episode has developed quite differently. These differences suggest how the films themselves must have differed in the stance they took about the Kellys.
The police ban, and the adoption of Ned Kelly and other bushrangers as icons of the Australian left, has tended to lead us to read bushranger ballads, stories and films perhaps more simplistically than they actually present themselves. Neither this film nor TSOTKG, it seems to me, is unrelentingly pro- or anti- Kelly - although one leans one way and one the other. Both show a morally complicated situation. Both have made selections from the various accounts we have of the incident and both have taken dramatic licence with those accounts.
Revenging Sherrit's Betrayal: "The Perth Fragment" (1906?)
As the first part of the next set of comparisons I am going to use an excerpt from "The Perth Fragment" of the 1906 film that apparently preceded TSOTKG.
I think you can see right away that these scenes are much less sophisticated than those we have already seen from TSOTKG.
This episode shows Aaron Sherrit determining to betray the Kellys to the police and the vengeance the gang takes on him for that betrayal.
I think you will agree that Sherrit seems like a stalwart fellow, beset by conscience, who does the right thing, not a weasley traitor at all.
Ada Waldron must have been visiting Sherrit (she is sort of the Zelig or Forrest Gump of the Kelly Gang) - at any rate, she gets away, and she even has someone to hold the horse for her.
I think you will also agree that the Kellys seems like vile fellows, not like heroes at all.
Remember I said that I thought this film must have been based on a stage melodrama. Two such productions about the Kelly Gang were fairly well-known at the time. One of these was associated with the actor and entrepreneur, Dan Barry. Although the text for Barry's 1898 production of the melodrama, The Kelly Gang; or the Career of Ned Kelly, the Ironclad Bushranger of Australia (written by Arnold Denham), clearly sympathises with the Kellys, the version of the play that Barry revived in Sydney in 1907 was criticised because "This new Kelly family are just cold-blooded murderers, and seem to kill for killing sake". Four years before, in 1903, the famous theatrical entreprenuer, E. I. Cole, had produced a melodrama called Hands Up! Or Ned Kelly and His Gang, The Iron-Clad Bushranger, which seems as though it may have been some sort of revision (or outright theft) of Denham's Kelly Gang play. It would not be out of the question for Cole's company to have been touring with this production in Western Australia in 1906 - just as it would not be out of the question for Barry to have been in Western Australia with his "cold-blooded" Kelly revival the year before he brought it to Sydney. I don't know if Ada Waldron was a character in either of the productions.
Revenging Sherrit's Betrayal: When The Kellys Were Out (1923) c1 min
The parallel episode from When The Kellys Were Out is much shorter. One reason is because we have been shown Sherrit's decision and the actual betrayal intercut with other narrative material over quite a long stretch of time. This leaves only the gang's revenge. And that is narrated both dramatically and economically, with pretty effective use of lighting and editing - not to mention a nice closing shot of the evening sky. Sherrit is played by Harry Southwell himself. And, by the way, no woodcutters were harmed in the making of this sequence.
Note this close-up of Sherrit.
That close-up is one of a series of almost identical close-ups showing Sherrit's internal battle between loyalty to his mates and loyalty to the state. All those close-up would have been done at the same time and then cut into the narrative wherever Southwell wanted them - a case of economy and poetics working well together.
Ned's Last Stand: The
Story Of The Kelly Gang (1906) c2 mins
For my last comparison I will use two versions of Ned Kelly's final stand against the forces of the law - consistently the dramatic highlight of all Ned Kelly films (even Reckless Kelly).
The images you are going to see, from TSOTKG, are iconic: they show what we imagine of the fate of Ned Kelly in just the same way that images of Lenin speaking on his arrival in Moscow from Sergei Eisenstein's October show what Russians imagine of that event. This particular imagery has overwhelmed whatever may have actually happened.
But time has, in its turn, almost overwhelmed the imagery. What you are about to see consists mainly of nitrate decomposition interspersed with flashes of action. How ironically appropriate that these scenes above all others in our filmic heritage should have been subjected to such a fate!
For me the abstract animation of violence on the screen only heightens the force of what I see. It is as though the action is so powerful and the means of its representation so inadequate that it bursts out of representation into the realm of pure affect, absolute sense unfettered by finite meaning. Each section of decomposition seems to erupt at an appropriate moment and, although I deeply mourn the images we have lost, I cannot but feel that we have gained something as well in the unexpected beauty of the corruption that has devoured them.
Ned's Last Stand: When The Kellys Were Out (1923) c2 mins
In Southwell's version of the same fate, as you might expect, we see many of the same visual motifs: the ominous log, the armour, the guns, the wounding, the fallen figure, the unmasking.
Southwell, however, uses the written word to drive home the moral of his story - over and over and over again.
He also makes his film a collage - by using bits and pieces from other films to show how justice deals with Ned. This is something of a trademark of cheap film making, but it is also a little like making a quilt out of bits and pieces of fabric left out of other projects - no less interesting, or even artful, because it is made from what others would throw away. These gleanings are also a little like the aesthetic equivalent of the nitrate decomposition that we have just witnessed: they distance us, make us aware of this film as a film, make Southwell's film and TSOTKG brush against an unformed, unseen Australian avant-garde.
The Kellys Were Out (1923) c1 min
To finish I have a very short clip - one which rather forcefully illustrates the sensational and crude aspects of Southwell's brand of exploitation movie making.
The person you see is Dan Kelly - and surely no one can miss the strong anti-alcohol message here.
But how we are to regard the snake? Is it an hallucination of Dan Kelly's (he seems to think so), or is it supposed to be a real snake that has happened to curl up next to his bottle?
Isn't it interesting that the sense of this scene does not change no matter what you decide? The message is still there whether the snake is real or a fantasy.
I want to close the formal part of this presentation with this image - not because it sums up the bushranger genre, but because we do not know what that snake is - reality or dream ... and, when you think about it, we do not really know what the bushranger is - not the real bushrangers, not the earliest bushranger films, but it also true that we will not, cannot, know even the very latest up-to-date bushrangers, not Gregor Jordan and Heath Ledger's bushrangers either. That ignorance, that indecision in the face of the strongest, clearest visual image - that point where we recognise that the moving image is always uncertain, always flickering us between looking and seeing - that is cinema.
Appendix - Telling A Story, Making A Legend
Thunderbolt (1910) c8 mins
Here is an appendix. Academics, even retired ones, always keep at least one appendix in reserve. In this case, the appendix based on a long clip intended to give you a more sustained taste of how the bushranger films of the boom - which are really the only films that could be said to have formed a distinct genre in the way that westerns do - are likely to have told their stories.
I have pointed out that in Thunderbolt Gavin generally places the camera fairly far away from the action, and that there is a tendency to play out the entire scene, or close to it, in one shot. The very first episode of this excerpt, which is intended to show how Thunderbolt rescued young William Monckton from cruel treatment, is a good example.
The camera pans to take in the action.
The hero loses his horse, but Gavin is willing to sacrifice a dramatic horseback exit for the sake of getting the whole narrative action in the one shot.
Of course his motives were partly ones of economy (he could have done a retake), but what results is also a matter of style and is consistent for the surviving footage of this film. This style of long shots and long takes, I should point out, was somewhat out of date in 1910 when Thunderbolt was made. This is one reason why film historians like Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper make such a point of Gavin's being a bad film maker. By this time shot length was often shorter and the framing of the action was tighter, particularly in American films - but Gavin never really shook off this archaic style, not even when he made his last feature, Trooper O'Brien eighteen years after this.
Yet there is evidence that Gavin had some understanding of the filmic conventions of his day.
Cross cutting (from Thunderbolt to the pursuing boy). (Griffith's "switchback").
Characters moving to the background and/or foreground of the shot, which uses the scene cinematically - and emphasises that the action has been staged out of doors, not on a stage. (Another device that does this is staging the action closer to the camera, as in the scene of the oath we saw earlier).
The result of this archaic style is a kind of Deleuzian Time Image - in which time is restored to the image, and we are made conscious of temporal elements that are usually occluded into the drama of what we see.
1. These Chinese are not Chinese;
2. These Chinese are figures of fun.
3. But these Chinese are on Thunderbolt's side.
4. The last title is unequivocally moral "Good for Evil". The key point of that title is not that the Chinese are good, but that Thunderbolt and his gang have been evil.
Thunderbolt, the Australian bushranger, has already been allied directly with a part-aboriginal woman and with a victim of child abuse. Now another marginal group is placed under the sign of the bushranger. This is one of the more common narrative moves in bushranger stories. Sometimes marginal groups actively aid the bushranger. Sometimes bushrangers actively aid such groups. In any case, a commonality is established that falls short of actual community - because the bushrangers remain apart even from these allies, distinguished from any others, bandits on the margin of the margin.